I’m sympathetic to what I see as the message of this post: that talk of mesa-optimisation is too specific given that the practical worry is something like malign generalisation. I agree that it makes extra assumptions on top of that basic worry, which we might not want to make. I would like to see more focus on inner alignment than on mesa-optimisation as such. I’d also like to see a broader view of possible causes for malign generalisation, which doesn’t stick so closely to the analysis in our paper. (In hindsight our analysis could also have benefitted from taking a broader view, but that wasn’t very visible at the time.)
At the same time, speaking only in terms of malign generalisation (and dropping the extra theoretical assumptions of a more specific framework) is too limiting. I suspect that solutions to inner alignment will come from taking an opinionated view on the structure of agents, clarifying its assumptions and concepts, explaining why it actually applies to real-world agents, and offering concrete ways in which the extra structure of the view can be exploited for alignment. I’m not sure that mesa-optimisation is the right view for that, but I do think that the right view will have something to do with goal-directedness.
I suspect that solutions to inner alignment will come from taking an opinionated view on the structure of agents, clarifying its assumptions and concepts, explaining why it actually applies to real-world agents, and offering concrete ways in which the extra structure of the view can be exploited for alignment.
Even taking that as an assumption, it seems like if we accept that “mesa optimizer” doesn’t work as a description of humans, then mesa optimization can’t be the right view, and we should retreat to malign generalization while trying to figure out a better view.
We’re probably in agreement, but I’m not sure what exactly you mean by “retreat to malign generalisation”.
For me, mesa-optimisation’s primary claim isn’t (call it Optimisers) that agents are well-described as optimisers, which I’m happy to drop. It is the claim (call it Mesa≠Base) that whatever the right way to describe them is, in general their intrinsic goals are distinct from the reward.
That’s a specific (if informal) claim about a possible source of malign generalisation. Namely, that when intrinsic goals differ arbitrarily from the reward, then systems that competently pursue them may lead to outcomes that are arbitrarily bad according to the reward. Humans don’t pose a counterexample to that, and it seems prima facie conceptually clarifying, so I wouldn’t throw it away. I’m not sure if you propose to do that, but strictly, that’s what “retreating to malign generalisation” could mean, as malign generalisation itself makes no reference to goals.
One might argue that until we have a good model of goal-directedness, Mesa≠Base reifies goals more than is warranted, so we should drop it. But I don’t think so – so long as one accepts goals as meaningful at all, the underlying model need only admit a distinction between the goal of a system and the criterion according to which a system was selected. I find it hard to imagine a model or view that wouldn’t allow this – this makes sense even in the intentional stance, whose metaphysics for goals is pretty minimal.
It’s a shame that Mesa≠Base is so entangled with Optimisers. When I think of mesa-optimisation, I tend to think more about the former than about the latter. I wish there was a term that felt like it pointed directly to Mesa≠Base without pointing to Optimisers. The Inner Alignment Problem might be it, though it feels like it’s not quite specific enough.
From my perspective, there are three levels:
Most general: The inner agent could malignly generalize in some arbitrary bad way.
Middle: The inner agent malignly generalizes in such a way that it makes sense to call it goal-directed, and the mesa-goal (= intentional-stance-goal) is different from the base-goal.
Most specific: The inner agent encodes an explicit search algorithm, an explicit world model, and an explicit utility function.
I worry about the middle case. It seems like upon reading the mesa optimizers paper, most people start to worry about the last case. I would like people to worry about the middle case instead, and test their proposed solutions against that. (Well, ideally they’d test it against the most general case, but if it doesn’t work against that, which it probably won’t, that isn’t necessarily a deal breaker.) I feel better about people accidentally worrying about the most general case, rather than people accidentally worrying about the most specific case.
The Inner Alignment Problem might be it, though it feels like it’s not quite specific enough.
I like “inner alignment”, and am not sure why you think it isn’t specific enough.
I think we basically agree. I would also prefer people to think more about the middle case. Indeed, when I use the term mesa-optimiser, I usually intend to talk about the middle picture, though strictly that’s sinful as the term is tied to Optimisers.
Re: inner alignment
I think it’s basically the right term. I guess in my mind I want to say something like, “Inner Alignment is the problem of aligning objectives across the Mesa≠Base gap”, which shows how the two have slightly different shapes. But the difference isn’t really important.
Inner alignment gap? Inner objective gap?
I’m not sure what exactly you mean by “retreat to malign generalisation”.
When you don’t have a deep understanding of a phenomenon, it’s common to use some empirical description of what you’re talking about, rather than using your current (and incorrect) model to interpret the phenomenon. The issue with using your current model, is that it leads you to make incorrect inferences about why things happen because you’re relying too heavily on the model being internally correct.
Therefore, until we gain a deeper understanding, it’s better to use the pre-theoretical description of what we’re talking about. I’m assuming that’s what Rohin meant by “retreat to malign generalization.”
This is important because if we used the definition given in the paper, then this could affect which approaches we use to address inner alignment. For instance, we could try using some interpretability technique to discover the “objective” that a neural network was maximizing. But if our model of the neural network as an optimizer is ultimately incorrect, then the neural network won’t have an explicit objective, making this technique very difficult.
I understand that, and I agree with that general principle. My comment was intended to be about where to draw the line between incorrect theory, acceptable theory, and pre-theory.
In particular, I think that while optimisation is too much theory, goal-directedness talk is not, despite being more in theory-land than empirical malign generalisation talk. We should keep thinking of worries on the level of goals, even as we’re still figuring out how to characterise goals precisely. We should also be thinking of worries on the level of what we could observe empirically.
I wish there was a term that felt like it pointed directly to Mesa≠Base without pointing to Optimisers.
I think it’s fairly easy to point out the problem using an alternative definition. If we just change the definition of mesa optimizer to reflect that we’re are using the intentional stance (in other words, we’re interpreting the neural network as having goals, whether it’s using an internal search or not), the mesa!=base description falls right out, and all the normal risks about building mesa optimizers still apply.
I’m not talking about finding on optimiser-less definition of goal-directedness that would support the distinction. As you say, that is easy. I am interested in a term that would just point to the distinction without taking a view on the nature of the underlying goals.
As a side note I think the role of the intentional stance here is more subtle than I see it discussed. The nature of goals and motivation in an agent isn’t just a question of applying the intentional stance. We can study how goals and motivation work in the brain neuroscientifically (or at least, the processes in the brain that resemble the role played by goals in the intentional stance picture), and we experience goals and motivations directly in ourselves. So, there is more to the concepts than just taking an interpretative stance, though of course to the extent that the concepts (even when refined by neuroscience) are pieces of a model being used to understand the world, they will form part of an interpretative stance.
I am interested in a term that would just point to the distinction without taking a view on the nature of the underlying goals.
I’m not sure what’s unsatisfying about the characterization I gave? If we just redefined optimizer to mean an interpretation of the agent’s behavior, specifically, that it abstractly pursues goals, why is that an unsatisfying way of showing the mesa != base issue?
The nature of goals and motivation in an agent isn’t just a question of applying the intentional stance. We can study how goals and motivation work in the brain neuroscientifically (or at least, the processes in the brain that resemble the role played by goals in the intentional stance picture), and we experience goals and motivations directly in ourselves.
I agree. And the relevance this plays is that in future systems that might experience malign generalization, we would want some model of how goals play a role in their architecture, because this could help us align the system. But until we have such architectures, or until we have models for how those future systems should behave, we should work abstractly.